Five things we learned: 78th Blue-Gold game

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On a beautiful afternoon for football, Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold game went off without a hitch. No turnovers. No broken coverages. More important than either—no major injuries.

All eyes were on quarterbacks Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer. And while Kizer’s Blue team pulled out the 17-7 victory, no quarterback’s play on the field—not even under a clear-blue sky high above the still-transforming Notre Dame Stadium—provided clarity to a battle that’ll continue into fall camp.

But plenty of position groups came into focus on Saturday afternoon, with a rebuilt Irish roster featuring new faces that’ll turn into key pieces of the 2016 team. As the offense and defense battled evenly, head coach Brian Kelly was happy that his young team was able to play clean football.

“I think it was a little bit of everything, I think it was good football on both sides of the ball,” Kelly told NBC’s Jac Collinsworth. “Fundamentally sound defensively. Offensively, it was a little bit of everything. Some guys stepping up and making some plays. I was pleased overall coming out here and having a competitive day.”

With Montgomery VanGorder scored the second half’s only touchdown in the game’s closing minutes, he finished the spring on a positive note. Let’s find out what else we learned as Notre Dame caps off a key transitional spring before the 2016 season.

 

The first-half quarterback showdown revealed the Irish are in good hands either way. 

The afternoon certainly didn’t start the way Malik Zaire wanted it to. Notre Dame’s rising senior quarterback, who is looking to reclaim a starting job he lost just two games into last season when he broke his ankle, missed early and often in his first two drives, both ending in 3-and-outs.

But Zaire turned things around and flashed moments of brilliance—making plays with his feet and with the deep ball, connecting with Torii Hunter on the day’s most impressive play. Zaire also ran for a touchdown, looking healthy and elusive as he capped off the Gold team’s lone scoring drive in a one-man army type effort.

If Zaire’s day featured highs and lows, Kizer’s steady performance underscores his comfort in the system. More surgical with his decisions, Kizer worked through his reads, finding success picking apart the Gold defense with underneath throws.

Kizer also won the mental chess match at the line of scrimmage, a third-down audible exploiting an open middle of the field where Kizer ran for a long conversion. His quick side-armed sling around an unblocked defender turned a sack into a nice completion to Alizé Jones. Maybe his best pass of the afternoon was dropped, a deep ball looped perfectly towards a streaking Kevin Stepherson, with the rookie failing to reel in the big gainer.

Both quarterbacks played the entire first half without a red jersey before turning the keys over to Brandon Wimbush in the second half. After the game, Kelly complimented the play of both, while also acknowledging that this battle isn’t ending any time soon.

“It was set up for the quarterbacks and I think they did a nice job,” Kelly said immediately after the game. “But I don’t think anybody separated themselves.”

 

As new faces emerge, freshmen Kevin Stepherson, Devin Studstill and Shaun Crawford look like major contributors. 

Brian Kelly has been telling everybody who’s been willing to listen that the young players on his roster were ready to make an impact. Saturday afternoon highlighted three of them, with Kevin Stepherson and Devin Studstill (both early-enrollees) along with (redshirt) Shaun Crawford looking the part of ascending players.

Stepherson was Notre Dame’s most active wide receiver, flashing top-end speed and the ability to play anywhere as he led the Blue team with 70 receiving yards. While he dropped a throw that would’ve put his afternoon into triple-digits, he’s clearly put himself into a position to be in the receiver rotation in the fall.

“We have a player on our team in KJ Stepherson that can catch the ball at full speed as he cuts across the field, a very unique trait,” Kelly said. “He still has to work on catching the ball vertically down the field. But he catches the ball out of his break at full speed, and it is a unique trait that he has that I have not seen since I’ve been here at Notre Dame.”

That explosiveness is likely why Stepherson was back catching punts. And even considering the difficulty freshmen wide receivers have had making an impact under Kelly, it looks like the unheralded recruit is positioned to be the most productive freshman wideout that Kelly’s had in his time in South Bend.

On the other side of the ball, Studstill was around the football early and often, proving very quickly that the praise her earned was much more than a motivational tactic for Max Redfield. Studstill ran the alley and made a nice stop on Zaire, limiting the quarterback to a short gain. He also looked at home in coverage, playing like a seasoned veteran, not a freshman who should be finding a prom date in a few weeks.

Put Kelly among those who wondered if Shaun Crawford knew what his green jersey signified (limited contact). It’s clear that a healthy Crawford has the ability to make the defense so much better with him on the football field. The Ohio native seems to just find the football. He was active in coverage, strong in run support, quick to diagnose every play he saw develop.

Crawford came off the edge with a blitz that ruined a play and played man coverage as an outside cornerback, too. With Nick Watkins out and Crawford still in the recovery phase after his August ACL tear, it’s clear the Irish have a playmaking cornerback on their hands. What’s surprising is that he looked like one of the most confident players on the field even before he’s made his collegiate debut.

 

Torii Hunter is standing out as the No. 1 weapon in the rebuilt receiving corps. 

Streaking deep with Nick Coleman in good position to defend him, Torii Hunter made the game’s best catch—snatching Zaire’s perfectly-thrown deep ball with one hand and bringing it in. The 50-yarder was one of three catches Hunter made as Zaire’s favorite target, a nice step forward for the rising senior as he ascends to the No. 1 wide receiver job.

Hunter’s evolution as a receiver has been one of the spring’s most important developments. Long viewed as one of the team’s best practice players, injuries have hampered through two of his seasons in South Bend before finally getting through 2015 healthy.

But Hunter has been unwilling to let anything get in the way of his ascent. Kelly credited those efforts after the Blue-Gold game, talking about the work ethic the rising senior has displayed.

“I think he’s had a terrific spring,” Kelly said. “The work volume that he’s put in while he’s going to school, while he’s playing baseball, has been an incredible commitment.

“It’s amazing what he does in terms of the intensity in which he practices and how hard he goes, and then he does the same thing for [baseball coach Mik Aoki]. He’s a unique young man in that he can focus and give that kind of intensity to both sports”

Hunter’s move to the front lines will be counted on in 2016, especially if Corey Robinson‘s return to the football field isn’t clear. But identified as one of the team’s most improved players this spring by Kelly on Friday, Hunter is poised for a big season.

 

Even with massive turnover, improved defensive fundamentals had to have Irish fans happy. 

Nobody is ready to anoint the Irish defense after it got the better of the offense in the spring game. But any worry that there’d be offensive fireworks and big plays coming fast and furious were erased by a rock-solid performance in the first half.

The Blue front seven made things difficult for Zaire from the game’s first snap. Neither Josh Adams or Dexter Williams get loose. While Drue Tranquill drew a “panic P.I.” on a deep pattern by Chris Finke and Hunter caught a 50-yarder, Kelly praised the competitiveness of his rebuilt secondary.

“I’m very pleased is the progress of some of the young players in the back end of our defense,” Kelly said. “I thought our corner play was better. I thought our safety play was much improved and those are the areas we need better play at, and I thought that those young players out there today made significant progress.”

Spotting Jay Hayes wreaking havoc from his new defensive end spot had to make Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore happy. Watching young linebackers Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas continue to learn on the field had to be promising as well. With Avery Sebastian making his presence felt and Jarron Jones flashing early, Kelly didn’t sound like a guy wishing something to be true in his postgame comments when he set a lofty goal for his rebuilt unit.

“I think that this defense is going to play the kind of defense necessary for us to get into that playoff hunt again,” Kelly said. “There are good enough players out there for us to do that once again.”

 

On a roster filled with new players, the progress is still apparent. 

There were no cameos with defensive linemen in the backfield or screen passes thrown to linemen. The quarterback battle didn’t feature a flea flicker or forced friendship to finish the day on a high note.

Saturday was a work day for the Irish—Brian Kelly made sure of that. And his young football team rewarded him with a solid day at the office, finishing spring like a team intent on taking advantage of every opportunity to get better that the NCAA allows them.

With 14 starters gone and the majority of those heading to the professional ranks, prevailing wisdom would allow for a step back as the roster rebuilds. But with young talent unwilling to wait to get on the field and veterans more than eager to breakthrough, this football team—for one day, at least—didn’t look like a group that expected to be anything less than a contender for a college football playoff spot.

The play was crisp. The competition was even. And as Kelly continues to look for leaders to step forward, he’ll do so from a framework where the program runs smoothly.

“It’s a pretty sound group. They are not a group that gets too far outside of the blueprint,” Kelly said.

The team now transfers into the players’ hands. Replacing five captains is no small task and the months of offseason training is when Kelly believes this team’s identity will be formed.

“We need to get the heck out of the way, in a sense, and allow those guys to step up and be leaders within their units,” Kelly explained. “That naturally happens when the coaches get out of the way.”

One of the benefits that comes with a rebuilt roster is the anonymity it allows. For the first time in a long time, the Irish will be able to do something they’re fairly unaccustomed to doing: Sneak up on people.

So while there’s certainly the possibility that the Irish can’t overcome the considerable personnel losses they faced, there’s no better time to project a rosy future than when it’s 70-and-sunny in South Bend.

Weather aside, there’s reason for optimism.  At the game’s most important position, the Irish have an embarrassment of riches. Notre Dame can win with Zaire or Kizer, and probably with Brandon Wimbush as well.

Defensively, the Blue-Gold game was a nice data point in the evolution of a unit with a spotlight on it. For as much heat as VanGorder has taken for his scheme and his unit’s maddening inconsistency, one area he rarely receives credit is for his ability to make big adjustments in the offseason.

We watched the 2015 team do masterful work against the option after looking lost a year before. When teams used tempo to take the Irish out of their game plan in VanGorder’s debut season, they were unable to do so last year. With comprehension and player recognition the singular goal of the offseason, it isn’t too big of a leap to think that Year Three could yield improved results, even after rebuilding its core.

For now, those are questions—not to mention the quarterback battle—are deferred to the fall. Until then, Irish fans can be happy with the progress displayed on a perfect football Saturday.

Kelly goes back to basics with defense

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday, revealing a few details about the defensive changes he plans to implement. And while he kept any specific schematic or personnel tweaks to himself, his comments helped clarify why he made the decision to relieve Brian VanGorder of his duties Sunday morning.

At the second inflection point of his tenure in South Bend, Kelly is once again betting on himself. We saw him do this to great success after he made the unconventional decision to name Chuck Martin his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season—betting on his protege instead of Ed Warinner, who then left to go to Ohio State after being passed up.

That’s not to say this move has the ceiling of Kelly’s last great pivot—an undefeated regular season that ended with a date in the national title game. You could just as easily argue it’s a survival play.

So perhaps that’s why Kelly was less interested in defining what Greg Hudson’s new job title means, and more resolute on clarifying that this defense will operate the way the head coach sees fit.

“He’s going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style,” Kelly explained.

“I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

“But right now, we’ll write the music and he’ll be the lead singer. I don’t know if that’s a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he’s learning everything as well.”

For those worried that the Irish head coach was shirking responsibility for his team’s 1-3 start, Kelly certainly is acting like a coach who is doing the opposite. He’s doubling down, and in doing so, acknowledging some of the fatal flaws that became exposed each and every game Brian VanGorder continued to coach.

The head coach will simplify game plans, asking his young team to do less but do it better. The staff will learn from the opening night debacle in Texas, a game plan that stressed scheme over personnel, a decision that was largely emblematic of how VanGorder handled his time in South Bend.

“We can’t defend everything. We can’t defend everything, but we have to be sound,” Kelly said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Kelly’s other major move will be developing a better rotation. After seven recruiting cycles, the roster has a deeper talent pool than VanGorder was willing to access. And for all the talk of sub-packages and defensive specialization, Kelly sounded like a coach who knew he needed to take things back to the basics.

“I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personal packages. That’s it,” Kelly said. “There can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages. We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday exactly where they fit in each group.”

With just days to prepare a defense that’s already at rock bottom, implementing any gigantic scheme change was always out of the question. But in looking for a new identity, Kelly also acknowledged some of the breaking points that forced him to make the change.

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Amba Etta-Tawo #7 of the Syracuse Orange pulls in a touchdown reception as Cortney Mimms #26 of the Colgate Raiders defends during the first quarter on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s defense is starting fresh with Greg Hudson, at least temporarily, at the helm. But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers doesn’t expect the instability to lead to a weakened opponent.

In fact, he thinks it’ll have the opposite effect.

“What normally happens in those situations is just like in a cowboy movies you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight,” Babers said Monday. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week.”

But the Irish didn’t win against Duke. And Brian Kelly’s decision to remove Brian VanGorder of his duties after just four games leads Notre Dame’s young defense into some uncharted territory.

Because the Irish will have to find a way to slow down a Syracuse offense that might not have as good of personnel as Texas, but is better at running the up-tempo, spread attack that the Longhorns installed this offseason. And Babers comes from the same Art Briles coaching tree that Sterlin Gilbert.

So Notre Dame will need to find a way to tackle receivers in space. And they’ll need to find a way to get an offense off the field that’s run more plays than every team in college football but three.

While Kelly promised both personnel and scheme changes, what can be done in a week remains to be seen. But with the Irish offense going up against a defense that’s actually worse statistically in every major category than Notre Dame’s, finding any success on the defensive side of the ball will be key.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Duke

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Anthony Nash #83 of the Duke Blue Devils runs for a touchdown during the second half of a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 24, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s move was emphatic. Brian VanGorder’s departure confirms that a 1-3 record is unacceptable. And the demise of this team was as swift as the departure of a colleague Brian Kelly has known for the bulk of his 25-plus year coaching career.

But that’s the job. And the move likely wasn’t easy for a head coach who saw himself as close to tenured as any man this side of Lou Holtz had been, and is now clearly in uncharted territory.

“I’m under review, as well,” Kelly acknowledged on Sunday afternoon. “We’re all in this together: All the players, coaches, everybody. So players’ jobs are on the line. Every job is being evaluated as the players. All coaches’ jobs are on the line as well.”

With Greg Hudson now directing the defense, and Syracuse having run more offensive plays than every program but three, the challenge this weekend is stark. So let’s move forward ourselves and finish off the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Dexter WilliamsBrian Kelly gave him credit, so let’s start there. Williams ran hard, looked explosive and flashed on special teams.

It’s time for Williams to get some more reps, even if it means taking away from Josh Adams’ leading load as well as Tarean Folston‘s.

 

Donte Vaughn. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback wasn’t perfect—he got beat inside a few times on slant routes that everybody in the building saw coming. But he came up big and made a play, something Notre Dame’s defensive backs haven’t done since Shaun Crawford went down for the season.

His length and cover skills should be put to the test again next weekend when Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo looks to replicate his monster 270-yard performance against UConn. The focus will be on Cole Luke, Vaughn, Julian Love and Nick Coleman.

 

Kevin Stepherson. The freshman only caught three balls, but all of them were big gainers,  including his beautiful 44-yard touchdown catch. With Torii Hunter unable to push the lid off opponents, Stepherson might be a better fit for the X moving forward, assuming he continues to learn the playbook and run precise routes.

 

The Weather. Looked like a heckuva day in South Bend, at least from a weather perspective.

 

THE BAD

The tackling. That was one of the worst tackling performances I can remember. Especially against a team that was anemic on offense heading into the weekend. Name a defender and you’ll recall a missed tackle.

Drue Tranquill held on to a few early, then had some ugly whiffs. Cole Luke, a guy Brian Kelly called the team’s smartest football player last week, sure looked lost a few times, too. And with hopes that Devin Studstill is the answer at free safety, Studstill did his best to make us wonder about that, too. He took some horrific routes to footballs, a difficult day at the office for a young kid who needs to learn quickly.

When your senior captain outside linebacker is getting run over by a quarterback for a first down and you’re thinking, “at least he made the tackle,” the bar has been lowered pretty significantly. But another week of “thudding” at practice might be needed—even with heavy installation coming soon.

 

The special teams. A missed field goal proved costly. So did some horrific tackling and coverage on the kickoff return that let Duke back into the game. And for the fourth time this season, Tyler Newsome flubbed his first kick of the game. (All but asking for the nickname Mulligan to emerge.)

Scott Booker has a ton of kids on his run teams. But they’ve got to get some consistency out there if they want CJ Sanders to help turn this into a positive, not another unit to hide.

 

The pass rush. Yes, the drought is over, with Nyles Morgan getting the first sack of the season for the Irish. But man—this team has a gigantic hole on it and finding any type of pass rush is critical.

Sure, Duke’s quick passing game took advantage of the Irish’s leaky secondary and didn’t let Notre Dame get to the quarterback. But at this point, every snap you’re giving Andrew Trumbetti over a kid who can get to the quarterback—Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, or anyone—feels lost.

 

The coaching. Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said the following, when asked about an evaluation of his defensive coaching and game plan.

“That’s probably the one area that I feel better about today. We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today,” Kelly said.

That was likely a time-buyer until a long night of thinking, because morning brought clarity for the head man.

 

THE UGLY

The State of the Program. With the game tied 28-28 heading into the fourth quarter, one team was jumping around like they’d won the lotto. The other was all but biting their fingernails, kicking dirty and looking lethargic.

If anything set off Kelly postgame—even more so than the defense his troops were displaying—it was the lack of effort.

“There’s no passion for it. It looks like it’s hard to play. Like we’re pulling teeth,” Kelly said. “You’re playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it’s work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game.

“There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s where we got to go.”

In Kelly’s first few seasons in South Bend, he was criticized for having his team celebrate victories, even the ugly ones. But somewhere this program lost track of the ultimate goal and that likely falls on the head coach to fix that problem as soon as possible.

 

Firing a staffer. Notre Dame’s head coach likely saw what many of us saw as well. But a decision like that from the cheap-seats is one thing, a decision from inside the program is another.

Follow Notre Dame long enough, and you’ll tire of thinking about the carousel that’s come and gone—Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis, armies of loyal assistants who have spent years working to climb the summit. And for most, life after Notre Dame isn’t the same.

Sure, there’s Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong. But there are a few dozen others who have come to a program with noble ambitions—willing to do it right and win on and off the field—but they fail too often on Saturdays.

So as ND Nation almost united in celebration of the move, it’s worth a quick word to a fanbase that always fashions itself as possessing proper etiquette.

Few come to your office and celebrate the worst day of your professional career. Less dig into your family’s Twitter account, hoping to break a story or confirm news they celebrate jubilantly. Sure, some of that comes with the territory. And certainly VanGorder was well compensated for his time in South Bend.

But ultimately, this Sunday hopefully provided some perspective. Baseball lost one of its brightest young stars. Golf lost one of its icons. And many many more things of consequence took place—inside the sporting world and out.

But when it comes to VanGorder, a quick reminder of something that has nothing to do with sports. A man has lost his job. A family will uproot once again. And the dynamics on the current football team—where Montgomery VanGorder still plays an important role—won’t ever be the same.

“I will tell you this: Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there. He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn’t working.”

There should be no harm in that.

VanGorder out as defensive coordinator

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)
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Brian VanGorder has been fired. Notre Dame’s third-year defensive coordinator was relieved of his duties after just four games.

Brian Kelly made the move official Sunday morning, less than an hour before his weekly Sunday teleconference. He’s replaced VanGorder with defensive analyst Greg Hudson, a former Notre Dame linebacker who joined the Irish staff in June and spent the last three seasons as defensive coordinator at Purdue, a position he also held at East Carolina and Minnesota. The rest of the defensive staff remains unchanged.

“Obviously, this is a difficult day for our coaching staff, but I’m excited and honored about the opportunity that Coach Kelly has afforded me,” Hudson said in the team’s statement. “We’ve got to improve on defense, without a doubt, and I’m confident that we will. We have great student-athletes and a tremendous defensive coaching staff. I can’t wait to get started with our group.”

The VanGorder era ends with the Irish ranked 101st in scoring defense, 96th in rushing defense and 87th in pass defense. The Irish are dead last in sacks, the last FBS team to get one when Nyles Morgan finally got the team’s first sack against Duke.

Hired after Bob Diaco left Notre Dame for the head job at UConn, VanGorder brought with him an NFL system and a multiple, attacking scheme. But after injuries derailed his first season, it was a defense best known for its maddening inconsistency, with even last season’s talented outfit plagued by the big play and mistakes.

As late as Saturday night Kelly pledged allegiance to his defensive coordinator, calling the staff’s game plan the least of his concerns after the 38-35 loss.

“We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today. I was pleased from that perspective,” Kelly said.